By Chris Myson
On another night, there is no doubt Celtic could still be in their tie against Juventus and heading to Turin in three weeks with a fighting chance of reaching the Champions League quarter-finals.
Neil Lennon will wish he had not gambled on selecting defender Efe Ambrose mere hours after he returned from the Africa Cup of Nations.
If the home side had not disastrously switched off after two minutes or if the referee had penalised Stephan Lichtsteiner for outrageous grappling in the box from multiple set pieces, we could have been looking at a very different first-leg result.
Ultimately though, the early goal from Alessandro Matri and strikes in the last 10 minutes from Claudio Marchisio and Mirko Vucinic handed Juve a 3-0 victory to silence a vociferous home crowd in Glasgow.
Antonio Conte’s team are only the second side – after Barcelona - to achieve an away win over Celtic in the Champions League era and have already booked their place in the last eight as a result.
|MATCH FACTS | Celtic 0-3 Juve
Games at the highest level, though, are decided on the finest of margins and ultimately Celtic came up short at the key moments and saw their mistakes punished.
Switching off defensively and allowing Matri to race clean through on goal from one long pass within minutes of a two-legged tie was naïve to say the least, gifting a vital away goal to the Old Lady.
It is true Celtic dominated possession and territory for long spells after the opening goal, but they only really created one clear chance, which ironically fell to flop of the night Ambrose, who failed to head home Charlie Mulgrew’s pinpoint cross in the second half.
Even then, with the tie still by no means out of reach with the score at 1-0, the home side ran out of steam badly in the final 20 minutes and saw further defensive errors ruthlessly picked off by the clinical Italians.
It was a harsh lesson for Celtic in what is required to succeed at the highest level of the European game. Sure, this is a team that beat Barcelona, but two-legged ties in the knockout stages are a very different proposition to group stages matches.
The early goal allowed Juve to maintain an essence of control of proceedings throughout, using their experience to withstand the inevitable home pressure and pounce ruthlessly when the time was right to kill the tie.
This remains a very young Celtic side. They are going to lose key man Victor Wanyama in the summer and may have to sell Gary Hooper too, but the majority of the squad will remain in Glasgow for several years to come.
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They can be proud of their efforts this season in reaching the last 16 for the first time in five years, but they must be sure to learn the lessons of what is a morale-denting defeat if they are to become post-Christmas performers in the Champions League on an annual basis.
With the SPL title certainly in the bag, the European journey now almost over for another year and after elimination in the League Cup, there is only the Scottish Cup matches which will have significant importance placed on them for the rest of 2012-13.
That gives Lennon plenty of time to develop his Celtic squad, assess his options and plan a renewed assault on the continental stage next year.
Ultimately, after months of hype and build-up, Tuesday night was a big disappointment. It was still a night to remember, another incredible atmosphere and a superb experience to welcome the giants of Juventus to Glasgow.
But the hosts were given a harsh lesson on what is needed in the knockout rounds and will have plenty of time to think about their errors as they watch Juve performing in the latter stages of the competition.
Reaching the last 16 has brought some much-needed European pride and valuable revenue to Celtic since their campaign began with the first of two qualifying ties back on August 1.
A heavy defeat and a harsh lesson from Juventus will have been a bitter pill to swallow, but if they can learn from both the highs and lows of this campaign, they should be ready to fare better if they come up against sides in the class of Juve in the years to follow.
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